Review: Wikinomics

Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott (other books by him) and Anthony Williams (other books by him) is a look at how e-mail, wikis, weblogs, instant messaging, cellphones and other digital tools change the face of business. The authors have done some previous work in business, but they’re principally journalists, I think. In this non-fiction work, they attempt to uncover the elements of what makes a successful, flattened operation possible.

The essential problem here is that most businesses consider their information proprietary. If you’re a mine, like the one discussed at the start of the book, your geological information is proprietary data that you’ve spent hard-earned bucks to gather from solid rock. You don’t want to give it up too easily. But at the same time, you may not have the geologists in-house to analyze that data effectively, and find new places to dig for gold. The difference between knowing and not-knowing may cost you several hundred million dollars. So the CEO of this company decided to make its intellectual property public. And it offered prizes to people who crunched the data for them, and found new ways to find gold. People came out of the woodwork to crunch the data, and not all of them were nut-cases. Today, this is the most profitable gold-mine in North America.

Proctor & Gamble was irritated that its internal R&D department wasn’t able to use its huge catalog of patented processes, and that it had a huge number of R&D problems that it couldn’t solve. So it found an online company, InnoCentive, where you can post R&D problems to consultants, who will attempt to find solutions. At the same time, Proctor & Gamble began posting some of its patented solutions as part of an effort to find companies that needed to solve those problems. It now earns almost $2 billion a year from licensing its patented technology and processes.

IBM found that it couldn’t build an operating system to compete with Microsoft Windows. So it tried to get Linux. Only, it couldn’t figure out how to interface with the Linux community as a company. So after several difficult tries, IBM decided that its engineers would simply interface one-on-one with the community, just like every other software engineer.

Best Buy discovered that its marketing and sales analysis force actually knew less about their customers than their sales force did. The people who interacted with the customers on the salesroom floor got incentives to talk to the decision makers at the top tiers of the company, in order to improve sales and customer service across the board. Wal-Mart started asking its buyers to keep blogs — uncensored and unedited. Wikipedia built an impressive encyclopedia solely on the basis of individual contributions over months and years. Even its errors eventually get corrected.

Boeing realized that it could build 787s using 400+ page explanations and countless meetings, but they wouldn’t get the plane they wanted and needed to stay competitive. So they partnered with their suppliers, got the suppliers to build the parts, wrote a 20-page specifications manual, and opened the whole construction and design process to trust and goodwill. They’re now competitive and successful for the first time in decades.

The tools that made this possible are wikis, e-mail, blogs… all tools for increasing communication, and flattening hierarchy. Whether this book explains successfully how they work, I don’t know. Even so, it’s a pretty good read. I guess the part I find most dismaying is that most schools are 10-12 years away from adopting many of these same tools, and moving towards student and faculty collaboration in a big way. Schools are inherently conservative, but it’s not good for our education system

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

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